Church Idiocy in Minnesota.

Dunces and Scholars: Which Cap Fits Archbishop Nienstedt?

I’ve been wanting to write about the misdirected Catholic expenditure, by the Knights of Columbus and now by the diocese of Minneapolis St Paul, to fight gay marriage. Michael J. Bayly (who is right there in the Twin Cities) at The Wild Reed has correctly called the Minnesota campaign a scandal:

Perhaps, like me, you’re curious as to whether or not the DVD at the center of this expensive campaign explains just how preventing gay civil marriage reflects the Gospel mandate to minister to the least among us. And what was it again Jesus said about homosexuality and gay marriage? Oh, that’s right, absolutely nothing! (He did, of course, mention marriage and his words have been used by some to denounce same-sex marriage. For my take on this, see my 2009 Solidarity Sunday homily, Liberated to Be Together.)

And yet at this time when thousands of Minnesotans are suffering as the result of the economic down turn, and Catholic schools and parishes are threatened with closure, the local clerical leadership sees fit to spend a considerable amount of money on urging Catholics to support discrimination against a minority group in civil society. Yes, it’s a scandal.

And as for the argument that the bishops’ are simply doing their job and educating Catholics on what “the church” teaches about homosexuality and same-sex relationships, I can only say that I’m tired of the clerical leadership’s impoverished understanding of human sexuality being passed off as “Catholic belief” when clearly many of the teachings that comprise this closed-circuit belief system (be they concerned with contraception, masturbation, homosexuality, or the meaning and purpose of sex) have simply not been received and thus accepted by the faithful. We don’t believe what these teachings say. They need to be revisited, revised and updated in the light of science and human experience. Catholic thinking and teaching have changed around moral issues such as usury, slavery, nuclear arms, and labor standards. Our tradition is open, in other words, to its teachings being shaped by historical and scientific knowledge. Why should our understanding of sexuality be immune from such an openness, from such ongoing development? Why is the church’s clerical leadership so adamantly opposed to teachings on sexuality and sexual morality being shaped by new insights? Why is a historically conscious approach to some moral issues permitted but an absolutist approach to others strictly enforced? Such inconsistencies comprise yet another scandal, especially given their implications for the intellectual standing of the church and for ordinary Catholics trying to live lives of integrity.

(The Wild Reed)

(Michael has also commented on the KOC, linking to a fine analysis by Jesse Zwick at the Washington Independent.)

Now to look at some of Archbishop Nienstedt’s “arguments”. Attempting to justify the DVD distribution, he says:

……we all know the state of marriage in our society today — the fact that … four to five out of every ten marriages ends in divorce, the rate of cohabitation has gone from half a million in 1965 to over 5 million couples today. One out of every three Americans over the age of fifteen has never been married. And there are 19 million children being raised by single parents.

-Minnesota Public Radio

What he does not explain (because he cannot) is exactly how preventing marriage for same-sex couples will reduce the rate of divorce or cohabitation, or ensure that children with single parents will be provided with two. Nienstedt’s argument is pretty well identical to that used by the Prop 8 defendants in California: judicial scrutiny revealed this view for what it is – totally devoid of evidence. Instead, even the “expert witness” in that trial conceded that the more realistic view is the exact opposite: allowing gay marriage will strengthen the family. It will do so by ensuring that presently cohabiting same sex couples will instead be able to enter formal legal contracts, and by setting up a greater number of couples publicly committing to each other in permanent unions, will strengthen the public role models for commitment. Coupling marriage equality and full family equality will also reduce the number of children with single parents – by increasing the pool of available adopting couples. (Many adoption agencies have observed that same sex couples are sometimes the only ones willing to take on the most difficult kids for placement.)

Nienstedt also says

we intend to and have been teaching what we believe is the God-given reality of marriage. Marriage isn’t something that we create as human beings. It’s already a given from the work of creation by almighty God.

The archbishop is entitled to express and defend his theological view of sacramental marriage as a religious practice – but that is not what this legislation is about. This is civil marriage, which as a legal contract between two persons lies entirely outside the religious sphere. To intrude religious belief here is to confound what should be a sharp separation of church and state – especially as an increasing number of religious thinkers disagree on theological grounds with Nienstedt’s conclusions. Instead, there is a clear religious case in favour of same-sex marriage. No religion has the right to impose, or to seek to impose, its theological views over others in the political sphere.

This is the passage that I find most offensive:

We’ve been labeled as discriminating against gay people. There’s no discrimination when there isn’t a basic right to something. And those who have the right to marriage are men and women who want to enter into a life-long, mutually supportive and procreative relationship.

I agree that there is no “basic right” to marriage. However, there is a basic right to equal treatment under the law.  If the law provides a route to legal protection for a contract between two persons of opposite sex, it should equally provide for legal protection of same – sex couples seeking that same protection when they too want to enter “life-long, mutually supportive relationships”. (The introduction of the “procreative” qualifier is a red herring. Neither church nor state limits opposite sex marriage to couples capable of raising children, or desiring to do so.)  This is particularly offensive given the Church’s broader teaching, on social justice and inclusion of the marginalised, which is firmly based in the Gospels – unlike the bishops’ horror of same-sex relationships, which is not.

And finally:

(same-sex marriage) confuses the very notion of marriage and the complementarity which marriage has always been founded upon between the two sexes, the man and the woman, the husband and the wife. And by expanding the definition of marriage, I mean where do you begin to stop?

Yet again I must point out the fundamental flaw in this claim: it simply isn’t true. Marriage has not always been between one man and one woman. Frequently, in history and in some modern societies, it has been or is between one man and several women. In biblical times, the legal contract was between two men – the groom and the father of the bride. For many centuries in the early church, there existed liturgical provision for the church blessing of unions between same-sex couples. The expansion of the definition of marriage is not something that begins with civil marriage: that redefinition has been a constant process throughout history. The modern understanding of “traditional marriage£” is itself a redefinition of what preceded it – marriage as a primarily financial arrangement, of no interest to the church.

It is not “redefinition” of the family that should be resisted, but the attempts permanently to freeze in law one particular manifestation of it that developed for conditions of a particular period of history – the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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